Fancy going to that new barbacoa place tonight?
As globalization brings English-speaking countries into ever closer contact with other cultures, so English borrows words from these cultures. In fact, it seems the appetite of the English language is becoming ever more voracious. And because we all like to eat, and many of us like to try new foods, these loanwords are particularly common in the world of food.
Recent additions to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online, and words we may consider adding in future updates, include foods such as arancini and pecorino (from Italian), queso and chorizo* (from Spanish), challah (from Hebrew), pad thai (from Thai) and tempeh (from Bahasa Indonesia). And then there are more words related to ways of serving food, like omakase (from Japanese), or barbacoa (from Mexican Spanish).
Let’s look at barbacoa, for example. In Mexican Spanish, and now in English too, this is a slow-cooked meat dish originally cooked in an underground oven, but in the Maya lands of southern Mexico it still refers to the oven itself – a barbacoa is a hole dug in the ground which is used as an oven for cooking.
But does barbacoa remind you of another English word? It wouldn’t be surprising if it does, because the word barbecue has been part of the English language for over three centuries. It has certainly been part of popular culture in English-speaking countries long enough to have morphed into a verb too, as nouns often do in English as they become more common. English grammar is very flexible in its ability to transform itself in this way, and this flexibility certainly helps it to absorb foreign words.
Let’s not forget that many other older words, which are now so familiar that some of us may even think of them as English words, such as restaurant, cafe and sommelier, are also of foreign origin. These older words often came from French, as France was seen as the height of gastronomic sophistication, and was therefore the source of most of our innovations in food. As our horizons have widened, though, more recent introductions are more likely to come from other languages.
But we’re getting distracted… now what’s that delicious smell? Back to the barbecue!
As well as changing their meaning, sometimes these words don’t even come from the language you might expect. Barbacoa, for example, came into Spanish from the language of the Native American Taíno people, who lived in the Caribbean before the arrival of Columbus and the European colonists. If we look at the Word Origin box in the entry for barbecue in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, we can see that in the Caribbean islands of the Arawak-speaking Taínos it was a structure made of sticks used for drying fish or meat, and only when it reached the mainland of the nearby continent was it transformed into a way of cooking the fish and meat, and finally, as the word migrated northwards through Mexico and into Texas, into a specific meat dish not even cooked in a pit.
So as you can see, barbacoa is quite a good example of how words can change their meaning over time!
Before becoming an Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press, Mark Temple lived another life as an English teacher in Spain, Italy and Latin America. His professional duties included eating barbacoa of all kinds.